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Berkeley Law Students Help Supreme Court Case

The United States Supreme Court hears arguments today in a key case about lethal injections in death penalty cases. There are questions about whether a paralyzing drug causes undue pain. The answers to those questions might be found in a brief about botched executions. KPCC's Julie Small says two students at UC Berkeley's Boalt School of Law helped write it.

Julie Small: The case before the high court was filed by a death row inmate in Kentucky. He argues his state's lethal injection procedure exposes inmates to an unnecessary risk of painful death. Boalt law student Joy Haviland says the problem is...:

Joy Haviland: Kentucky has only had one lethal injection, so there isn't that well developed of a record in terms of evidence or discovery of things that have gone wrong in lethal injection.

Small: But there is in California, in the case of Mike Morales. He was due to die by lethal injection at San Quentin, but challenged the state's drug mixture and the lethal injection procedure. Joy Haviland studied the Morales case as part of her work last semester at Boalt's Death Penalty Clinic. She helped put together an amicus brief on lethal injection for the Kentucky case.

Haviland: So our job was collecting all those facts of things that have gone wrong and have been documented, and presenting that to the court.

Small: The clinic's brief argues that some states turn a blind eye to the suffering death row inmates can endure during lethal injection. In the Morales case, a federal judge suspended all lethal injection executions in California until the state adopts a better procedure.

In the Kentucky case, the Supreme Court may set strict new standards for how states execute by lethal injection, effectively halting executions until states comply with the new standards. Boalt student Vanessa Ho, who also worked on the brief, says she was lucky to be part of an historic case.

Vanessa Ho: It was an amazing opportunity to be involved in something so high profile, and such high stakes litigation. I mean I don't know when I'll ever have an opportunity to do something like that again.

Small: Most law students don't get a chance to work on an amicus brief in a case before the Supreme Court. But it's different for students at UC Berkeley's Death Penalty Clinic. Ty Alper supervised the project.

Ty Alper: Well, I mean, giving students that amount of responsibility in a capital case is the sort of bread and butter of what we do.

Small: Each year, a dozen students work with the clinic. Last year, the students researched and wrote briefs that helped free inmate Walter Rhone. He was serving a life sentence in Alabama for murder. But investigators later documented misconduct in Rhone's case by the judge, the jury, and the prosecutors. Rhone spoke at a fundraiser for the clinic after his release.

Walter Rhone: I just want to thank all of you all for everything that you have done. Even the students, more so. Because without you all groundwork and researching, and just staying up. I know you had tests and everything that you had to do. But you all had me first, and I feel much love for you all. Thank you. [Sound of applause]

Small: Elizabeth Semel is the executive director at the Death Penalty Clinic. She says the clinic's mission is to attract and train more quality lawyers to represent people like Rhone, who can't afford a good attorney. Semel says government has failed at that.

Elizabeth Semel: Legal services ought to be, particularly when someone is accused of a crime, a matter of right. And that it's not simply a question of a warm body. But that the lawyers to whom poor people are entitled ought to be as skilled, as competent, and as committed as the lawyers whom the wealthy can provide for themselves.

Small: Getting law students to pass up lucrative careers in big commercial firms can be tough. But Semel hopes a student's experience at the clinic might spark an interest in a legal career that's about more than money. That's how the Clinic's Ty Alper got hooked. He worked for a public defender during college.

Ty Alpter: I remember we were sitting in the office of the lawyer I was working with, preparing him to enter a guilty plea to some minor offense that would still require him to spend years in jail.

Small: They asked him some standard questions, like what was his birthday.

Alper: And when he said his birthday, I realized that he and I had the exact same birthday. We were born on the same day. And that just sort of struck me that here two people who were born on the same day, but in completely different circumstances.

And just sitting there, I couldn't say honestly, with a straight face, that I wouldn't be in his position if I'd grown up in the poverty that he'd grown up in and suffered the abuse that he had suffered. And so it sort of struck me, sort of one how lucky I was, but also how rewarding it could be to help people who really had had no help along the way.

Small: That's how Ty Alper eventually landed at Boalt's Death Penalty Clinic. Joy Haviland and Vanessa Ho, the two students who helped write the Supreme Court brief, say they plan to work in criminal law too.